Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Debord: The first lonely writer

Poetry has still not reached its readers.  
Osip Mandlestam
Debord’s most scintillating lines were not his own. And of those jewel-like sentences, for which he alone seemed capable of discovering a true setting, the most resistant to distortion by wider reception have proved to be those which addressed receptivity itself:
These comments are sure to be welcomed by fifty or sixty people; a large number given the times in which we live and the gravity of the matters under discussion. But But then, of course, in some circles I am considered to be an authority. It must also be borne in mind that a good half of this interested elite will consist of people who devote themselves to maintaining the spectacular system of domination, and the other half of people who persist in doing quite the opposite. Having, then, to take account of readers who are both attentive and diversely influential, I obviously cannot speak with complete freedom. Above all, I must take care not to give too much information to just anybody.

Debord had spent much of his career moulding the stuff of the reception of ideas, and during the break up of the SI he focused on it with a savage intensity, fingering the ‘pro-situs’ as culpable bad readers. The radical reintroduction of the concept of a limited readership in 1980 coincided with the mainstream publication and distribution of The Comments, and thus the advent of that ‘wider public’ which every demagogue yearns for. It is not strange how his contrarian supposition that not everyone is readied to receive certain information concerning society has still not filtered through to the propagandists of the left. Their frenzied leaflets and torturous articles continue to accumulate like middens, without objective reciprocity or mass readership. 

Certainly, the idea of non-communicability of ideas had never occurred to me before reading Debord but since then I have made something of a life’s work out of it. Even so, this recognition of an absence of a natural readership, and the idea of writing into an abyss of indifference, is not Debord's invention.  He was not the first to discover the disproportion between the possible rate of communication, the infinite potentialities of connection apparently inherent within mass information technologies, and the impoverished actuality of social intercourse. The opening lines to Comments are probably derived from Stendhal’s On Love where the readership is anticipated within the various prefaces to be somewhere between 100 and 17. Alternatively, he may have detourned the idea from the radically pessimistic Macho de Assis who also steals from Stendhal for a framing mechanism for his novel Epitaph of a Small Winner:

When we learn from Stendhal that he wrote one of his books for only a hundred readers, we are both astonished and disturbed. The world will be neither astonished nor, probably, disturbed if the present book has not one hundred readers like Stendhal's, nor fifty, nor twenty, nor even ten. Ten? Maybe five.
We are astonished and disturbed, because it is assumed as we begin each stage of our life’s journey by considering ourselves, alternatively, as good as the next man, a man of the world, somebody easy to get on with and a fellow with catholic tastes. It is not pleasant to discover that we perhaps will connect, really connect, with only a handful of people in our entire lifetime. Yes, astonishing and disturbing to consider the series of discrepancies that exist between the piles of newly printed literature and the numbers that will eventually be sold, between those sold and those read, between those read and those understood, between those productive of understanding and those productive of common perspective.  

Whether confirmed within theories derived from the precepts of and departures from hermeneutics, or suspected in life experience, the reality of limited possible connection with others, is encountered as a block on all but the most sentimental and simple images, ideas and enthusiasms. In fact, as individuals we are settled always in a local niche of unbreachable proximity –  the chagrinned narrator of every niche quickly encounters the improbable potential for mass communication of difficult concepts, but continues anyway. 

And so it is that I contemplate the recorded reader statistics for this electronic journal (precisely 107 last month and 406 in all). Stendhal would have been delighted with such attention and yet, numbers of ‘views’ are rarely translated into wished-for readers. To return to Debord’s insight, ‘It must also be borne in mind that a good half of this interested elite will consist of people who devote themselves to maintaining the spectacular system of domination... ’ and so it is that most readers in cyberspace are not human at all but ‘spiders’ and ‘bots’, and of those that are human only a fraction, in their ones and twos, connect genuinely, between their bouts of clicking and tapping, with what they have read. 

There is a terrible precarity within communication technology for those who are attempting to communicate something other than the mere electronic connection itself. It has become a habit to speak into the silence, into the void, without expecting an other and so when there is a response we are unsure how we should respond in turn. More often than not, the response is cryptic, classic marginalia, one line in length, a sort of graffiti. Internet connection resembles  a ‘speed dating’ performance... we feel ourselves always about to be shut off by the other. We  are not prepared with any insight into the other’s strict criteria for reciprocity. We are immediately aware that error of tone and content is fatal. Malconnects are never explained. 

It is now a convention that personal communications on the internet do not proceed beyond the first touch of antennae – a trophylaxis of separation. There is a response and an eager response to the response, then there is silence. Why did ‘A’ who said, ‘I so agreed with what you said,’ then not reply when asked to explain further? Why did ‘Z’ not return after initially telling his life story all in one go? What is it that ‘N’ favourably consumed in those words that later caused him to refuse to discuss them? 

There is a paradoxical but objective tendency within mass communications media towards silence which is achieved by serial, multiple, unsustained connections that in each instance articulate a cancelling out of previous connections, leading to an interpellated falling away from each other. 

Debord was the first to theoretically condense the objective limit to the potential for socialisation of the mediations performed by live technologies (it is probable that only obsolete, dead, alien technologies may be humanised as these do not transport an active code of domination). And yet, he could not bring this finding to bear on his theory. It was apparent to him that the driftings of individual encounters within the given infrastructure are constantly being corrected objectively but he retained the unsupported idea that this objective tendency might still be corrected by later, other users. At this point his pessimism is undone by its unworthy opponent.